Wednesday, July 02, 2008

introducing... America Adrift

Dear friends, colleagues, readers, bloggers in arms, and those of you who don't know where you are or how you got here,

The Atlantic Community has moved!

We've staked out a new homestead on the cyberfrontier, America Adrift. It's rather simple to find us. Just type, americaadrift dot com. Say it with me now three times; America Adrift, America Adrift, America Adrift. Please pass on the word, mark your web browsers and update your blog roles. You can feed us here.

Same tag line as before, "transatlantic perspectives on america." Of course, we are only transatlantic in so much as one can conceive of a "transatlantic cyberspace." But don't ask any of us to explain what that really means. Our mission remains:

America adrift is a collaborative weblog and community for research, analysis and commentary on American society and culture. Our aim is to provide a public voice for European scholarship in American Studies, forging stronger communication between the academy and the public on both sides of the Atlantic.

Mission accomplished? I guess. Our move is basically premised upon being able to do more of what we already do, just with a few more bells and whistles. But really, just a few. Notice there are now individual author pages with a listing of all articles by that person. You can access them from the right column just bellow the drifting apple. You'll also find a column titled, "recent posts" for quick reference. We'll be adding features as we go along. Ideas and feedback are most welcome.

For me, the best thing about being part of this community has been just that, the community. It's been a great experience participating with my fellow contributors and I look forward to carrying on the conversation at our new address. This site has also been a vehicle for meeting many interesting people out in the big bad blogosphere. See our blogrole for example.

When this thing got started I had no idea where it would go. I still don't. But the ride thus far has been both "interesting" and rewarding. It's also fun when I speak with folk who say stuff like, "I follow your blog but I don't always no what it's about...just what did that Alice B. Toklas Brownies article mean anyways?"Not to worry, we don't always know what it all means either. But, as "the best little American Studies blog in the universe," we try to take it all in strides and not take ourselves too seriously. At least not here. That's not to say we don't engage in serious discussions. Seriously.

Let me just say a huge thanks to Bent in particular and to all our contributors generally. You guys made this the lively community that it is.

Speaking of which, see for example Anne's latest post, The Real Ambassadors, a wonderful reply to Fred Kaplan's piece on the Jazz Ambassadors which appeared in the New York Times earlier this week.

Also see Camelia's latest post, FEDERMAN FRENZY, introducing a fantastic new collection of essays on Raymond Federman (all available online).

Stay tuned, Steen's got something on the way but if you missed his article on the White Stripes you should go back and have a look at, The Big Three Killed My Baby.

If you've got a sweet tooth go back and read Bent's Alice B. Toklas Brownies article. Also, you'll find several recent conference announcements along with all his blog posts here.

Summertime will hopefully get in the way of too much blogging but with the return of Fall expect us full swing ahead.

All the best and see you on the flip side.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Real Ambassadors

In a Cold War context, “jazz was a natural” in the arsenal of cultural diplomacy. So concludes Fred Kaplan a piece in the New York Times on the Jazz Ambassadors Program of the mid 50s. Possibly because jazz during the years when the program was launched, was not only a purely homegrown art form, but also a regular mass culture export.

So, it is interesting that when Kaplan asks what would be today’s “secret sonic weapon” the answer seems to still be jazz.

Present day’s version of the Jazz Ambassadors Program is called Rhythm Road and although it does offer what is referred to as “urban” music (not sure whether this is supposed to be an inclusive term, or just a euphemism), the main focus of the program is still jazz. It is however not with the stars of yesterday or even today, the groups are all fairly unknown. Not that this would make much difference in terms of impact, as the great names of jazz today hardly receives the world press attention of big rock, pop or even “urban” names.

During the 1950s the names of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington certainly had an impact both in and outside of the US. Enough to carry political clout even? Kaplan cites the example of Armstrong refusing to go on a planned tour to the Soviet Union during the events at Little Rock, suggesting that this put additional pressure on Eisenhower to send in the National Guard. Perhaps other forces were at play here, but as Penny von Eschen points out in her book, Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War, there is no doubt that the musicians taking part in the tours were fully aware of the complicated agendas and the double standards of a program advertising America as the great democracy of the world, while civil rights were being systematically suppressed in the US.

The Real Ambassadors was a jazz musical written by Dave Brubeck and his wife Iola in collaboration with Louis Armstrong. In essence it was a satire over the State Department tours and a scathing comment on race relations in the US. It was performed just once in a concert version at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1962. There was talk of taking it to Broadway, but no one would touch it for its controversial nature. In recent years, jazz vocalist Dianne Mower has been working hard at finally getting the show produced on Broadway. In today's political climate the lyrics to the title song are once again pertinent.

Also, what seems to be consistently overlooked is the fact that this brand of cultural diplomacy was, by nature of the music, a dialogical affair – American jazz musicians did not only bring jazz to the countries they visited, but also came into contact with various other music cultures – learning and absorbing new influences. But of course, that is not part of the narrative that uses jazz as a metaphor for the national American spirit. For this, it is important that jazz remains a purely American art form – one that offers a superior vision of “democracy” and “freedom”. One that has refuses to acknowledge the inherent hybrid nature of jazz. And one that by its essentially static position would seem to be ill equipped to deal with present day intercultural encounters.

The fact is that even though the tours are still embedded in discourses of canon, tradition and national romanticism, the reality is that the dialogue continues. As Kaplan reports...

Before the bass player Ari Roland went to Turkmenistan last year, he learned some Turkmen folk songs. His band played jazz improvisations of these songs with local musicians — the first time such mixing had been allowed — and a 15-minute news report about the concert ran on state television several times the next day.

Jazz came into existence as a creolized form – a meeting of various cultural expressions. Because of this and the openness of the improvisatory approach it has retained the ability to enter into musical conversations with the other. And this is why jazz is viable as an effective cultural bridge. It can, perhaps better than any other music form, be both global and local.

The Real Ambassadors:

Who's the real ambassador?
It is evident we represent American society
Noted for its etiquette, its manners and sobriety
We have followed protocol with absolute propriety
We're yankees to the core.

We're the real ambassdors
Though we may appear as bores
We are diplomats in our proper hats
Our attire becomes habitual, along with all the ritual

The diplomatic corps
Has been analyzed and criticized by NBC and CBS
Senators and congressmen are so concerned they can't recess
The State Department stands and all your coup d'etat have met success
They caused this great uproar
Who's the real ambassador, yeah, the real ambassador?

Louis:
I'm the real ambassador.
It is evident I was sent by government to take your place
All I do is play the blues and meet the people face-to-face
I'll explain and make it plain, I represent the human race
I don't pretend no more.

Who's the real ambassador?
Certain facts we can't ignore
In my humble way I'm the USA
Though I represent the government
The government don't represent some policies I'm for.

Oh we learned to be concerned about the constitutionality
In our nation segregation isn't a legality
Soon our only differences will be in personality
That's what I stand for!
Who's the real ambassador, yes, the real ambassador?

Dave & Iola Brubeck


Sunday, June 29, 2008

Migration and Literature

An increasingly hot topic in literary studies and in the area studies fields, such as American Studies is the relationship between writing, place, identity and belonging. Evidence of this agenda getting more and more important can, for instance, be found in the proposed topics for conferences and seminars worldwide. In Denmark the next big Am. Studies event, the Nordic Assosciation for American Studies' biannual conference, has as its theme Cosmospolitanism. Among the many questions the conference invites us to contemplate is the following:


Does the prominence of writers such as Junot Dìaz, Francisco Goldman and Jamaica Kincaid-or the focus on border regions and bilingualism in the works of older writers like Cormac McCarthy-suggest a cosmopolitan turn in contemporary "American" literature?

Hopefully by May 2009 many scholars and students will have thought of topics and papers that will help illumminate this and many other issues pertaining to migration, writng and cosmopolitanism (and its opposites)...

Nearer in time Copenhagen University offers a one-day course in Migration and Literature on September 26. While designed for secondary school teachers and librarians, the event is also open for students in limited numbers. The program can be perused here.

The course concludes with an extremely exciting event at the Literaturhaus in Møllegade, Copenhagen. This event is a triple reading by the following authors:

Ha Jin, representing China and the US, author of Waiting and Under the Red Flag.

Shadi Bazeghi, Iran and Denmark - a young poet writing in Danish.

Rubén Palma, born in Chile, residing in Denmark, writing in Danish, translated into English and published by Curbstone Press in New York (The Trail We Leave).

Palma is little-known in Denmark, but has intriguing comments about what made him become a writer once he realized that he had become a transnational subject:

From author interview:

YOU BEGAN WRITING AT THE AGE OF THIRTY-ONE IN DENMARK. HAD YOU EVER CONSIDERED BECOMING A WRITER WHILE YOU LIVED IN CHILE?

I grew up in a poor Chilean barrio with a strong, old-fashioned macho culture. I would not say that I found writing feminine. In fact, I always found writing an interesting activity. But I just did not consider it to be masculine enough. As a boy, and later as a teenager, all I wanted was to be a football player or a boxer. With
those images in my mind, I do not think I would ever have become a writer in Chile.

HOW DID DENMARK INFLUENCE THIS DECISION?

The idea of writing began taking shape after I had been in Denmark for eleven years, when I realized that maybe I was never going to return to Chile. At that point, I understood that Chile was left behind, and that Denmark was no longer a transitory place in my existence. It sounds paradoxical but I felt a kind of emptiness which nevertheless liberated a lot of new feelings. Suddenly I was able to look back and ahead, to look at myself in a new way.

Read more here...

I hope some of our readers will find their way to this twice transatlantic event in September!

See also...

Thursday, June 26, 2008

No Caption Needed Birthday

Robert Hariman and John Lucaites recently posted the one year anniversary of their fantastic blog, No Caption Needed.

You can read Bent's review of both the blog and their seminal book by the same title here.

They're experiencing some "growing pains", something we are familiar with here.

It’s been a year since we began this blog. We had no idea what we were getting into. The initial idea was to put up an ad for the book. Not a great idea, but then we thought that we could write a few posts to thicken the ad. After all, neither one of us had the time to do this on a regular basis. One thing lead to another, and soon we had created a monster: we loved writing the posts and seeing the audience grow, but we still didn’t have the time, so we told ourselves that we’d do it for a year and then quit. It’s been a year and we don’t want to quit, but we need to make some changes.

I encourage you to stop by and leave your comments or drop them an email, or better yet both. This is one of the little jewels out in the academic blogosphere (and a service to the public at large). Both blog and book have been a source of inspiration for me personally as I have become increasingly drawn into visual culture, semiotics and that emerging niche that Bent refers to as iconicity studies.

Best of luck and continued success with No Caption Needed.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

FEDERMAN FRENZY
























Since the early 60s, Raymond Federman has been one of the most important American writers. In his highly experimental fictions - works that bear such titles as Take It or Leave It, Double or Nothing, and The Twofold Vibrations - he has explored cultural and personal memory, invented intricate narrative strategies, and above all has given readers an experience that exceeds the ordinary. Creating situations that make one really think and really laugh is a tall order for any writer. But Federman did it. He is one of the few writers to truly have achieved this.

As he has just turned 80 and is being celebrated around the world, some of us here in Denmark have decided to mark the event. That Federman is still around, publishing, blogging, answering private emails, and engaging with readers of all sorts, can indeed be considered a gift of the highest quality. Just check his blog - [the laugh that laughs at the laugh] - to get a sense of how important it is for him to situate himself not only vis-à-vis literary history, in which he is by now well recognized and firmly consolidated, but vis-à-vis the kind of literary history that allows readers to come close to writers and thus engage in a 'communal' act of writing themselves. Put it differently, we read Federman to write about him as he writes about us through his own experiences. Federman is a round kind of writer.

In response to such generosity, I've put out a collection of essays written in collaboration with colleagues at Aalborg University. The volume presents four scholarly articles, and as indicated on the poster (make sure to enlarge it so that you can see the table of contents to begin with), it also offers readers a special treat in the form of unpublished texts by Federman. The book Federman Frenzy: the 'cult' in culture, the 'me' in memory, the 'he' in history - encounters with Raymond Federman is published as a web publication by Research News, Dept. of Language and Culture, Aalborg University.

Friday, June 20, 2008

CFP: Jack Kerouac, Kerouac’s On the Road and the Beats

Following up on our spring sequence of posts on The Beats (conveniently collected here), we'd like to help announce a two day conference to be held at the University of Birmingham in December. Scholars will meet and give papers on aspects of the Beat Generation with a particular focus on Kerouac's novel On the Road. But perhaps even more enticing is that the original scroll manuscript of that novel will be present in Birmingham as well, in a rare European visit (the scroll has mostly been on display in US cities). I am very excited to finally get to see the Holy Grail of Beat artefacts up close. My paper, btw. will probably investigate Neal Cassady, the real life model for the novel's protagonist, con-man, Holy Goof, culture hero, Dean Moriarty...

Here is the CFP in its entirety:

A two day conference at the University of Birmingham UK

(Thursday 11 December 2008 and Friday 12 December 2008)

Marking the fiftieth anniversary of On the Road’s publication in the UK, in 1958 (following its 1957 publication in the US). The University of Birmingham has arranged for the 1951 original typescript manuscript of On the Road - the world-famous scroll of 1951 - to come to the Barber Institute at the University during December 2008 and January 2009. A series of events is planned to celebrate this, including a Film Event (during the evening of 11 December) timed to coincide with this two-day conference, which will likely include the UK premiere showing of One Fast Move and I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur, produced by Jim Sampas.

The conference will take as its focus the ‘Beats’ and their relations to On the Road and its themes - travel, jazz, sexuality and gender, rebellion, disaffiliation and alienation, class and ethnicity.

Plenary speakers will include Tim Hunt, Matt Theado and Oliver Harris

Please do come along to this exciting event and - if you wish - deliver a paper.

CFP: If you want to deliver a paper please submit a title for your paper and an abstract of between 100 and 250 words for consideration to: r.j.ellis@bham.ac.uk by 31 October 2008

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Alice B. Toklas Brownies

I was surprised recently in my relentless pursuit of Beat scholarship to learn of a connection between Brion Gyson, who invented and later taught William Burroughs the cut-up technique, and Alice B. Toklas, who was Gertrude Stein’s long-time companion and muse.

Even more surprisingly the connection turns out to revolve around a recipe for ‘Haschisch Brownies’ which Toklas (apparently unwittingly) included in her 1954 cookbook - a recipe that was actually given to her by Gyson…

Here is Gyson's joking description of the cakes:

“This is the food of paradise—of Baudelaire’s Artificial Paradise: it might provide an entertaining refreshment for a Ladies’ Bridge Club or a chapter meeting of the DAR. In Morrocco it is thought to be good for warding off the common cold in damp winter weather and is, indeed, more effective if taken with large quantities of hot mint tea. Euphoria and brilliant storms of laughter, ecstatic reveries and extensions of one’s personality on several simultaneous planes are to be complacently expected. Almost anything Saint Theresa did, you can do better if you can bear to be ravished by un evanouissement reveille!”

It may be a little too late for a weekend treat to bake the brownies tonight, but if you insist here is the recipe:

Take 1 teaspoon black peppercorns, 1 whole nutmeg, 4 average sticks of cinnamon, 1 teaspoon coriander. These should all be pulverized in a mortar. About a handful each of de-stoned dates, dried figs, shelled almonds and peanuts: chop these and mix them together. A bunch of cannabis sativa can be pulverized. This along with the spices should be dusted over the mixed fruit and nuts, kneaded together. About a cup of sugar dissolved in a big pat of butter. Rolled into a cake and cut into pieces or made into balls about the size of a walnut, it should be eaten with care. Two pieces are quite sufficient.

In pop culture these so-called 'Alice B Toklas brownies' gave rise to ample references, not least the title and main plot device of the 1968 Peter Sellers farce, I Love You, Alice B. Toklas... This clip can (possibly) also be enjoyed without having partaken of any sort of cookie shaped stimulant:


If not, you can always grab a Big Mac:

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

No Caption Needed

Recently we at The Atlantic Community have been honored by a bit of attention from the excellent photo journalism and public culture blog No Caption Needed. NCN is run by Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites who authored one of the only sustained books charting the emergent field of cultural iconology, No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture and Liberal Democracy. Hariman is a professor in the Dept. of Communication Studies at Northwestern U.; Lucaites is a professor of rhetoric and public culture at Indiana U. Together they have created an indispensable volume for anyone interested in the functions and construction of iconic images in the public sphere. Here is a reproduction of the table of contents:

TABLE OF CONTENTS

1 INTRODUCTION

2 PUBLIC CULTURE, ICONS, AND ICONOCLASTS

3 THE BORDERS OF THE GENRE Migrant Mother and the Times Square Kiss

4 PERFORMING CIVIC IDENTITY Flag Raisings at Iwo Jima and Ground Zero

5 DISSENT AND EMOTIONAL MANAGEMENT Kent State

6 TRAUMA AND PUBLIC MEMORY Accidental Napalm

7 LIBERAL REPRESENTATION AND GLOBAL ORDER Tiananmen Square

8 RITUALIZING MODERNITY’S GAMBLE The Hindenburg and Challenger Explosions

9 CONCLUSION Visual Democracy

The blog version of NCN constantly challenges us with new images from a wide range of fields (political culture, for instance the uses and abuses of the US flag; pop culture; sports; cultural geography etc.) The two authors post regularly Monday to Thursday most weeks, and on many weekends the put other, often humorous stuff up, such as their on-going collection of 'sight gags'.

I guess The Atlantic Community is stepping into similar territory with our many recent posts on political iconography in connection with the Presidential election campaign, and also with our research into the function of historically specific icons, such as my work on icons of transgression. Indeed, we are happy to link to NCN in our blog roll, and honored that they have included us in theirs.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Texas Democratic Party State Convention Tribute to Ann Richards

via Sivacracy

I looked at some of the images from this montage in this post here if you're interested. One of the things that seems pretty apparent across the US political landscape, is that Democrats are actively reclaiming historical and cultural narratives and effectively appropriating them into their political campaigns.

Monday, June 09, 2008

The Wiki Way

Noam Cohen has an interesting piece, The Wiki-Way to the Nomination, at the NY Times on the online activism behind the Obama campaign. It's a bit simplistic but it provides some good background if you haven't been following all the online activity. Doesn't everything happen online today?

It's also interesting how techno jargon is becoming more mainstream. The Wiki-Way. I guess terms like grass-roots activism just sounds too analogue.

Friday, June 06, 2008

The Ninth Annual Honora Rankine-Galloway Address

“Will Race Survive in the US? The Possibilities and Impossibilities of the Obama Phenomena”

By Professor David Roediger,

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Sponsored by the Embassy of the United States, Copenhagen

Center for American Studies

University of Southern Denmark, Odense

Thursday, September 25, 2008

14:15-16:00, Room 100


This lecture, based on David Roediger’s shortly forthcoming How Race Survived United States History (Verso), sets the historic presidential candidacy of Barack Obama within longer patterns of white supremacy in the U. S. past. It argues that the successes of Obama’s candidacy register important, though contradictory, changes in racial attitudes in the post-1965 U.S. At the same time, the “Obama Phenomenon” also obscures the extent to which the structural factors leading to race-thinking persist and raises critical questions regarding the political challenges of moving past a view of race predicated on the simple dualism of black and white.

Professor Roediger teaches history and African American Studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His books include Working Toward Whiteness: How America's Immigrants Become White (New York: Basic Books, 2005); Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002); Towards the Abolition of Whiteness: Essays on Race, Class, and Politics (London and New York: Verso Books, 1994); and The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (Rev. ed. London and New York: Verso Books, 1999).

All Welcome!

For further information, please contact Dr. Benita Heiskanen, Center for American Studies, SDU-Odense, email benita@hist.sdu.dk, tel. +45-6550 3133.

Working in the Coal Mine

Whatever metaphor we may use, this is "crunch time" for many of us writing, editing, and grading papers, preparing for exams, getting out those last minute proposals, dotting the i's and crossing the t's.

In the weeds, the jungle, buried in paperwork, up against the clock, 4th and goal. Well, you get the idea.

I always liked Devo's cover of Allen Toussaint's "Working In The Coal Mine" from their 1981 album New Traditionalists and thought this as good a metaphor as any. Perhaps some of you may vaguely remember this track from the soundtrack of the animated movie, Heavy Metal.

This is dedicated to all the summer slaves of academe.



"When my work day is over I'm too tired for having fun........."

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Obama Clinches


See the Agonist for more.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Rock Pioneer Bo Diddley Dies at 79

NPR.org, June 2, 2008 - One of the fathers of rock 'n' roll died Monday at the age of 79. Bo Diddley was born Ellas Bates in Mississippi and grew up in Chicago, where he played guitar on street corners before being discovered by Chess Records. He leaves behind a sound that helped build a musical movement.

What made Bo's music so unique? I don't know exactly but if I had to assign to it just one adjective it would be, crunchy. Yeah, what a wonderful crunchy sound.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Communing with Lincoln


This picture (h/t The Bag) immediately struck me as it provides a very interesting visual narrative to an analysis I recently wrote on some contemporary political appropriations of Abraham Lincoln. I plan to discuss this image in more detail, along with my article which will be available after the weekend.

In the meantime, go check out The Bag's post, "Taking A Lesson," which apart from providing an interesting reading of the image demonstrates a very telling case of the politics of photojournalist editorializing.

Why you are there, also see this very provocative post, "Stereotypes From The White Corporate Media: The Black Man Gets His Hands On The Presidency."

Monday, May 26, 2008

McCain's Memorial Day Political Iconography


Today is Memorial Day in the US. Doubtful there was any "coverage" by our local media here. But given the recent importance we've been placing on visual analysis, iconic studies, and semiotics I thought this image, featured today on the mainpage of John McCain's campaign website, might be interesting to toss around.

I've recently been re-reading Robert Hariman's and John Louis Lucaites' exceptional book, No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture and Liberal Democracy.

Chapter 4, "Performing Civic Identity," specifically explores the iconic image of the flag raising at Iwo Jima.

Hariman and Lucaites argue that the flag raising image creates three simultaneous civic narratives based on three deeply embedded ideological traditions within America's political and cultural history. I'm pulling this from memory so please correct me if I don't get it exactly right.
1. civic republicanism
2. egalitarianism
3. nationalism

From the photo above, its obvious that the man holding the flag is none other than John McCain. Given that John McCain's campaign has embraced militaristic and nationalistic themes for his campaign an image like this is not unique for McCain on its first read.

However, I couldn't help seeing this image in relation to the iconic Iwo Jima photo. There's McCain, standing atop a barren hilltop amongst an eerily similar barren landscape like that depicted in the Iwo Jima.

What do you think? Is McCain relying on the cultural memory of the Iwo Jima image here?
If so, does the image meet any of the three qualities listed above? For Hariman and Lucaites the Iwo Jima worked and continues to work because it simultaneously embodies all three of those traits which can be read by different and competing identities within the body politic. For me, any expression of egalitarianism or popular liberal democracy is removed from the context in the McCain photo. Its even difficult to read a civic republican virtue into the visual narrative. I'm left with a libertarian ultra-individualistic patriotism as the sole narrative. Perhaps the creators thought a lone McCain would strengthen the "maverick" meme. I don't know, I think this image fails terribly in comparison to the original, if that is what it was based upon.

What do you think?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

CFP: Cultures of the Image

Iconotopoi/Bildkulturen (Cultures of the Image)
Current Academic Practices in the Study of Images
Joint Eikones-McGill Graduate Conference
Department of Art History and Communication Studies
McGill University, Montreal
December 3 to 5, 2008

The joint McGill-Eikones Graduate Conference Iconotopoi/Bildkulturen (Cultures of the Image) aims to identify and challenge cultural and linguistic barriers within the academy, so that the study of images may one day become as mobile as its objects of inquiry.

Since the early 1990s, at least two interdisciplinary fields dedicated to understanding images attest to the differences in cultural/academic approaches to the study of images: Visual Studies in America, and Bildwissenschaften in German-speaking Europe. Each of these fields traces its roots back to the Linguistic Turn, and both stem from the Pictorial or Iconic Turn (cf. W.J.T. Mitchell’s Critical Iconology and G. Boehm’s notion of Bildkritik). Bildkritik emphasizes the singular image, its inner tensions and structures, and its temporal and affective interplays. In contrast, Visual Studies often focus on the social and political contexts of image productionand reception, thereby broadening the field in which images are considered.

http://www.mcgill.ca/ahcs/iconotopoi

Read more...

Monday, May 19, 2008

Dead Heads for Obama

A few months ago I posted an article, Postmodern Presidential Branding, which highlighted Obama's "O" logo in particular, as a example of open ended visual narrative, easily recreated and reproduced. Here's exhibit 3,569. I was never a Dead Head (though I dated one) but I've been a Grateful Dead fan for as long as I've been choosing what I listen to. The Dead Head community has always actively recreated and reproduced the Grateful Dead image which makes this image all the more interesting as it merges two open-ended narrative icons. The employment of Obama's campaign slogan,"fired up and ready to go" was also not lost on this gentle commentator. This flew under my radar at the time but here are some photos of the band from the "Dead Heads for Obama" GOTV event.




Here's Bob Weir endorsing Obama which links to both Mickey Hart's and Phil Lesh's endorsement. Why didn't this get as much press coverage as John Edwards' recent endorsement? Anyhow, there's also video from the concert which you can scroll through but I thought the quality was so poor I've posted the song bellow instead.

In my little neck of the woods here in Denmark, after three glorious weeks of sunshine we received a little box of rain this morning. Dead Heads were doing "viral marketing" long before Time Magazine named "YOU", person of the year, but this "user generated" video is pretty sweet. Happy Monday.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Lakota Sundance and the American Flag

One of the most captivating presentations at the recent EAAS conference in Oslo was Kay Koppedrayer's narration of the events at a Lakota sundance ceremony on the Pine Ridge reservation where American Flags were flown during the ceremony:

One year, four American flags flew over a Lakota sundance on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Raised on a column of lodge poles dug into the hillside above the eastern gateway of the sundance arbor, the flags were easily visible from every location on the sundance grounds, from where families camped, to where people parked and sat in their cars, to the shade circling the arbor, where the drums and singers sat, to inside the arbor where the sundancers prayed, to the fire and where the sweat lodges were located.

There were varying opinions among the participants concerning the meaning of the iconic flag in such a context. I was particularly struck by this comment cited by Kay:

As one of the Lakota sundancers put it, "that's our flag, too. We captured it. We won that flag, the one that’s flying up there." He was referring to the defeat of Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, in which more than a few American flags were taken by the victors. One estimate is that some fifteen were later brought back to the Lakota and Cheyenne camps.

See for instance the account by Chief Rain-in-the-Face of his role in the battle of Little Big Horn which mentions a flag capture:

I had sung the war song, I had smelt power smoke, my heart was bad--I was like one who had no mind. I rushed in and took their flag; my pony fell dead as I took it. I cut the thong that bound me; I jumped up and brained the sword flag man with my war club, and ran back to our line with the flag. I was mad. I got a fresh pony and rushed back, shooting, cutting and slashing. This pony was shot and I got another. This time I saw Little Hair (Tom Custer)--I remembered my vow. I was crazy; I feared nothing. I knew nothing would hurt me, for I had my white weasel tail on. I don't know how many I killed trying to get at him. He knew me. I laughed at him and yelled at him. I saw his mouth move, but there was so much noise I couldn't hear his voice. He was afraid. When I got near enough I shot him with my revolver. My gun was gone, I didn't know where. I got back on my pony and rode off. I was satisfied and sick of fighting.

The pride in the American flag expressed by one Lakota sundancer in the above quote from Kay's presentation was supplemented by her further account of the respect several veterans of service in the US military expressed for the flag. Historically the US Government has made considerable efforts to establish the role of the flag and has used it as a means of integration of Natives serving in the military. Kay Koppedrayer again:

Veterans returning from the war were welcomed with victory songs, adaptations of earlier songs celebrating victory over other tribes or the US cavalry (Standing in the Light: A Lakota Way of Seeing, Young Bear and Theisz, 1996: 83-84), and flag songs, introduced to the reservations with the citizenship and recruitment campaigns. [...] Flags were flown at these [social] dances as at most other gatherings on the reservation as part of the Americanization process. Veterans, honoured with the flag songs and victory songs, were given the privilege of opening and policing the gatherings. As for the Lakota soldiers who didn’t come back, their deaths were honoured with the display of the flag. A description of a soldier’s burial at Rosebud describes his body being brought home: “Long before we reached the home we could also see Old Glory floating from a tall flagpole that had been set up since the news of his death had reached the reservation” (Department of Interior 1927: 3).

At the end of the sundance described in Kay's presentation the flags were taken down and in an impromptu ceremony presented to a young Marine representing all the veterans there. Kay quotes this young man's account of the event:

He said that when he stood there in front of the people, it was so still, so quiet, he felt as if the ancestors were there, all the veterans were there. He stood there for all the veterans and he can’t put into words how he felt, can’t express it, can’t explain it. He said the look on the faces of the family members who received the flags is something he can’t explain. He said that the experience took him to another place, "it was as if I was up on the hill [the hill surrounding the sundance grounds, but also an expression that is used when one goes fasting (= vision quest), the hill where the flag poles were, the hill where the men had earlier been fasting] watching. I could see myself and I could see everybody and I could see the pride. The pride I felt wasn’t my pride, but it came from the people, it came from them and I felt it through me."

Kay's narration of these events and feelings left us all quite stunned. The somewhat problematic connotations of Old Glory had been re-interpreted for us in a whole new context. I deem the actions of the participants in the Lakota sundance as a performance of an instance of unincorporated, non-hegemonic collaborative icon-work vis-a-vis the US flag...

For an alternative Native view see this document.

Here is a Whitecap Dakota/Sioux flag used in Canada:

Thursday, May 15, 2008

An Uncanny Convention(al) Photo

Yesterday John Edwards endorsed Barack Obama. I know, old news already. But if you haven't seen the video it's worth noting the overwhelming enthusiasm from the Michigan crowd when Obama introduced Edwards. Considering he received 7% of the vote in West Virginia and isn't even running I'd say he's still got some serious mojo with "the people".


Hat tip to the EENR blog for video. EENR is a progressive blog community which began as a partisan grassroots community for John Edwards and has since morphed into an independent progressive/populist advocacy site.

The thing that struck me immediately about the visual of Obama and Edwards together was how much they looked like running mates at a Democratic convention. No doubt many would have read the visual as such which was probably the point. The BAG has a few remarks on this worth checking out, "-- it's hard to believe the true blue O-team wasn't playing for this exact pose."

Bellow is Clinton and Gore at the 92 Democratic convention. The comparison is uncanny.
Even Edwards' and Obama's facial gestures mimic Gore and Clinton in these two photos.
Do you notice anything different between the two photos?


The title of this blog post is a direct play on the BAG's title linked above, "Obama-Edwards: Just A Convention(al) Photo"

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Icons of Transgression

My paper for the EAAS conference in Oslo last week dealt with icons and icon work, continuing a line of research I began about 5 years ago when I participated in a conference in Austria with the theme of US Icons. The convener of both the AAAS event in 2003 and of the Oslo workshop was Klaus Rieser of Graz, Austria whose tireless work is beginning to make an emergent interdisciplinary field out of Icon Studies.


Here is an excerpt of my presentation focusing on my two case studies of transgressive American icons, Charles Manson and Patty Hearst...

It is the elderly Manson who fuels the imagination of icon workers that use him in a politicized discourse, as witnessed first by a right wing manipulation of Manson’s image, photo-shopped into a photo of former Democrat candidate for President, John Kerry, who was the victim of a vicious slander campaign due to his past as an anti-Vietnam War activist. Here a grinning Manson in a suit modelled on Kerry’s (as is Manson’s hair style) shows the Senator a piece of paper or a photograph (perhaps a snapshot of the original Manson victims), and they appear to share a moment of confidence, although Kerry’s closed eyes might indicate that the image Manson shows him is a bit too much to take in. Note the Swastika on Manson’s forehead (he had used a knife to scrawl an 'X' on his forehead during his trial, and this 'X' later turned into a Swastika in popular legend), as well as the Kerry campaign button on his lapel.


In a parallel image, this time used to satirize Kerry’s defeater, George W. Bush, Manson’s photograph (the raw image is the same, and here the hair and attire are not airbrushed or photo-shopped) is used for a different type of collaborative icon work, this time more oppositional in nature. It is accompanied by an amusing text calling for the approval by the Senate of Manson as ambassador to the Klingon Empire (referencing the Star Trek universe). In this narrative Manson works for the Republicans as (crudely) indicated by the replacement of the Swastika on his forehead, which is substituted with a GOP Elephant, the symbol of the Republican Party. Bush and Condoleeza Rice are both ‘quoted’ as supporting Manson’s speedy appointment, saying for instance that “questions about Manson’s management style shouldn’t be part of the confirmation process”.


These two instances will be perceived as collaborative only from a politically partisan view. Both authors use Manson’s monstrosity to satirize the party he or she does not belong to. They are both hegemonically inscribed in a party political system, although not officially sanctioned by either party. The main iconic image I have selected for analysis is however a true homage to Manson.


Here Manson is a saint and a martyr, signalled as in classical religious iconography via a representation of his stigmata. Here we note again the Swastika on Manson’s forehead, echoed in even more stylized form in his halo along with pentagrams that associate Manson with Satanism. His other stigmata consist of the blood stains on his face and neck and the strange umbilical chord of blood stretching from the back of his skull into the background of the icon. The photograph used as template for the icon is one depicting Manson in a particularly wild-eyed moment, taken shortly after his arrest, but prior to the X’ing incident. The choice of red, black and purple colours for Manson’s halo and the background (the traditional rays of light signalling the subject’s holiness in religious icons is here turned negative and black) contrast sharply with his pale skin. Taken together with the Swastika this composition and colour scheme serve to underscore Manson’s racial programme which the creator of the icon obviously condones. On the website I originally located the image there is a click through link to a further shrine for Satanism and Alistair Crowley which opens when Manson’s image is clicked.

Manson’s afterlife as an icon is thus prolonged by oppositional, collaborative icon work, falling within at least three spheres (which are not as separate as they perhaps should be): political, religious and pop-culture discourses all feed off his image...

Turning now to Patty Hearst, we encounter a story much intertwined in the same counterculture background as the Manson legend. Heiress Hearst was the victim of an extremely high profile kidnapping in 1974, at the tail end of the armed struggle that militant splinter groups originating in the counter-culture and its anti-capitalist agenda was waging in America. The kidnappers, the bizarrely named Symbionese Liberation Army, carried out urban guerrilla warfare inspired by South American left-wing groups. Their agenda further included an attempt to free African-American inmates from the US prison system which their rhetoric compared to concentration camps and apartheid regime oppression a la South Africa. The SLA saw itself as spearheading a Black revolution in America and took as its symbol a seven-headed cobra snake – each head representing a Kwanzaa principle, such as unity, creativity and faith. After kidnapping Hearst and demanding various types of ransom payment (in kind, to be distributed among the poor), Hearst apparently willingly switched sides and joined the SLA in a bank robbery, generating one of the more iconic images of Patty (now known as Tania) wielding a sub-machine gun.

The SLA was eventually hunted down by the police and in an extremely violent shoot-out which resulted in a fire, most of the SLA members were killed. Hearst and a few SLA members escaped the siege and shootout, but were arrested soon after. During the trial, Hearst again switched persona and claimed that her participation in the robbery was coerced and that she had been sexually abused and brainwashed during her captivity by the SLA. She was sentenced to a fairly mild stretch in jail, her sentence was reduced by President Carter and eventually she was fully pardoned by President Clinton. A number of iconic cultural texts have been generated by this sequence of events.

The best known icon of Hearst is the image of her in front of the SLA cobra on a bright orange background. ‘Tania’ stares aggressively at ‘the Man’, ready to fire her Thompson gun – another weapon is ready in the background. This is revolutionary iconography 101, down to the army fatigues, the beret, the weapon and the surprising amount of cleavage shown. The phallic cobra offers a potent reminder of Tania’s taming, but also boosts her new-found revolutionary clout. As an ironic paean to this image Warren Zevon has put Patty Hearst into the lyrics of his tall-tale of mercenaries, post-colonial African liberation wars, upright, well-meaning Norwegian boys displaying bravery, sinister Danish power brokers, and CIA engineered betrayal followed by posthumous just deserts in the form of a headless ghost’s revenge: “Roland, the Headless Thompson Gunner”. The song ends on a didactic note:

The eternal Thompson gunner
Still wand'ring through the night
Now it's ten years later, but he still keeps up the fight
In Ireland, in Lebanon, in Palestine and Berkeley
Patty Hearst heard the burst
Of Roland's Thompson gun and bought it…

What exactly the meaning of the closing phrase “and bought it” means is an interesting point of debate. To buy something, of course means to acquire it for money, but also to buy into a story hook, line and sinker. The court case against Hearst revolved exactly around this point: did she buy the rhetoric of the SLA, or was she coerced or seduced, becoming a case of Stockholm Syndrome? My take on Zevon, who has many songs about masculine exploits gone horribly wrong (“Send lawyers, guns and money – the shit has hit the fan” is a line that springs to mind), is that he is warning us all against being taken in by revolutionary bravado and romanticism. To him Hearst is the naïve, protected, socialite teen who temporarily falls for the seduction of revolutionary ardour (a sentiment I would guess many of us can recognize).

Here is Zevon performing his song on Letterman:


More images of Hearst and Manson available here...

Read the rest of my paper in due course when it appears in print or as part of my book on Icons of Transgression...

Friday, May 09, 2008

Harvard Law Commits to Open Access Scholarship

For the times they are a-changin'

“Each Faculty member grants to the President and Fellows of Harvard College permission to make available his or her scholarly articles and to exercise the copyright in those articles. More specifically, each Faculty member grants to the President and Fellows a nonexclusive, irrevocable, worldwide license to exercise any and all rights under copyright relating to each of his or her scholarly articles, in any medium, and to authorize others to do the same, provided that the articles are not sold for a profit. The policy will apply to all scholarly articles authored or co-authored while the person is a member of the Faculty except for any articles completed before the adoption of this policy and any articles for which the Faculty member entered into an incompatible licensing or assignment agreement before the adoption of this policy.”


Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Thoreau at Walden at Containing Multitudes

The American Studies East Anglia blog has recently undergone a few minor changes, including a very cool banner and new blog title, Containing Multitudes.

A few days ago Graphic Adaptations of American Classics was posted, highlighting some very interesting new comic art, all of which are now cued on my Amazon wish list. But the most interesting for me was John Porcellino's adaptation of Henry David Thoreau's Walden, which I've ordered for myself now and to share later with my son.

Containing Multitudes has an "exclusive account of the genesis of Thoreau at Walden by the book's creator, John Porcellino" here.

Walden is such a dense, beautiful text, that almost every line in it could be fodder for pages of exploration. I tried to keep to the essence, and obviously there's a lot that that couldn't be included.

Both posts contain a wealth of links for further investigation. Perusing the Center for Cartoon Studies website I found another intriguing work they released, Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow. This too is on my short list.

Oh yeah, CM has also established a Facebook presence which you can find here.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Cars and Killers

Next week will be a busy academic whirlwind tour of two Nordic capitals for me: Helsinki and Oslo. The two main American Studies events of the year are crammed together as Consecutive conferences: The Renvall Institute's Helsinki do, The Maple Leaf and Eagle Conference, has reached instalment no. 12 in its fine run (it will be my third time around as a participant). The theme is always broad and this year is no exception: "North America - Relations and relationships". My contribution is about the cultural importance of one specific, iconic brand of car: The Cadillac...


I approach this broad topic from a cultural text studies point of view, analysing film, photos, novels and songs - investigating how the cars are represented as markers of specific identity positions within specific difference hierarchies:

The Cadillac car has long featured in the American imagination as a signifier of cool masculinity, mastery of the road, financial surplus and a predilection for luxury and comfort (cf. the lyrics to ‘Cadillac Man’, quoted below). I propose to analyze a number of cultural texts that construct, establish and eventually subvert these connotations. I am particularly interested in constructions of race and sexual orientation utilizing the vehicle of the Cadillac. Texts to be analyzed include Jack Kerouac’s “fag Cadillac” in On the Road, rock singer and performer Mink DeVille, the persona of James ‘Thunder’ Early (played by Eddie Murphy) in the 2006 movie Dreamgirls, and various rock ‘n’ roll lyrics featuring comparisons of Fords and Caddies…


Well I’m the king of the road
Ain’t got no place to go, no place I call home
Seen the world from behind this old wheel
Driving away from those feelings I feel
- Cadillac Man
After a few days in Finland we'll relocate to Norway for the big European American Studies event under the auspices of the EAAS. Here my presentation is in connection with my on-going project on American Icons, more specifically some icons of transgression, associated with the 1960s. I'll give a paper on two celeb-criminals, two very different cultural texts, Patty Hearst and Charles Manson:

All iconic representations of actual persons (living or dead) are caught in a dichotomy between elements of normality/familiarity and elements of transgression. Manipulation of representations of celebrities or famous persons into hero- or other-images can either constitute adversarial or collaborative icon work. In adherence with the conference theme of “E Pluribus Unum or E Pluribus Plura” it would be interesting to examine iconic images that are meant to be particularly transgressive of normality and challenge stereotypical images of American wholesomeness. I propose to look at specific collaborative, yet provocative representations of two 1960s icons of transgression: Charles Manson and Patty Hearst, and to analyze how these particular images simultaneously stylize and sacralize these counterculture (anti)heroes, turning the viewer of the icons from passive consumers into ardent worshippers, consumers or cultural agnostics, all according to our ideas regarding the subjects and symbols in question. The images are reproduced below:




Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Nye Boycots Florida

...and so must we all. Shameless indeed. There has been a disturbing resurgence of Jim Crow legislation around the country but Florida's overt intimidation of civic volunteers is the most troubling. With gutted federal enforcement agencies and a conservative Supreme Court, it will take some serious grassroots momentum to turn the trend around. I won't hold my breath on either McCain or the elite media.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Out of the Bag again and behind the curtain

After last week's ABC Democratic primary debate, the Bag posted a great series of TV frames as a visual recap to the debate. In my earlier post I wrote;

This is by far the most succinct summary of last night’s debacle of a debate TV show hosted produced by ABC News Disney Entertainment. This captures the essence of what is, “the postmodern condition” of US politics.

I selected this image as the most telling frame of the set.

Tuesday was Earth Day btw, but most wouldn't have known if not for Google's always clever way of "holiday theming" their logo. Al Gore has recently launched a $300 million environmental ad campaign to increase awareness and apply political pressure. Likewise, some of the other major environmental organizations have also launched public advocacy campaigns like the Sierra Club's Power 2 Change. The environment is one of the top issues among Democratic voters but it wasn't discussed during the debate or in any meaningful way since.

But Tuesday was also Pennsylvania Primary Day, which dominated the news cycle. So fitting the severity and importance of the major issues at hand, the three remaining presidential candidates recorded statements on Monday, not to address global warming, poverty, the war in Iraq, or the economy but addressed fans of the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) for the popular program, "Monday Night Raw."

McCain, I would presume, won the verbal "smack down", with a subtle mispronunciation of Obama's first name and a not so subtle gender bias, "If you wanna be the man, you have to beat the man." Remember Bush Sr. used to deliberately mispronounce Sadam Hussein's first name in a similar fashion leading up to the first Gulf War. The right wing has repeatedly injected Obama's middle name, Hussein, at every turn.

Jeez, when will Democrats learn to stop playing in territory which give Republicans distinct advantages? Clinton as "Hill-Rod" was more on cue than Obama's inauthentic, "do you smell what Barack is cookin'?" Did the campaigns provide their own scripts or were the candidates scripted by the WWE? I initially associated "cookin" with "soul food" and the wrestling character who played Obama in the ring that night was fitted with grossly exaggerated "ape like" ears. But the cooking line could also just be a reference to one of wrestling's biggest stars, The Rock.

McCain's,"...and whatcha gonna do when John McCain and all his McCainiacs run wild on you?" was just disturbing. McCain with his own private paramilitary special force of brown shirt goons comes to mind. Obamabots and Hillbots seem to be the most common derogatory slang for their respective supporters. In 2004, Howard Dean's partisans were referred to as deaniancs. But coming from McCain's mouth, who's running a distinctly militarized campaign the personal "run wild on you" feels all the more threating. Of course, this is all just entertainment right? Corporate sponsored entertainment, which is what the Bag so aptly crystallized.

So here's where this post comes out of the Bag again and looks behind the curtain. President Bush, who now has the lowest approval rating of any president since Taft, appeared on the NBC game show program, Deal or No Deal to address one the contestants, a three tour Iraqi War veteran. See the video here.

There are far too many points to address here in this blog post. Many important ones have been raised at the Bag, not the least of which is the Bush administration's use of soldiers as political props. But I was most interested in how these three utterly bizarre media episodes might relate to each other.

During the last decade, TV programming has become notably dominated by "reality TV." For me, these three episodes; the debate, the WWE, and Deal or No Deal, all occurring within a week, signify a continued media commodification of the political public sphere into a realm which ceases to even attempt to recreate or reproduce reality. In it's place the entertainment industry creates "hyper-real TV" in essential Baudrillardian fashion.

My initial reaction to the Bush megatron appearance was not Orwell's 1984, which came next, but the Wizard of Oz.

It's become commonplace today to compare America's stumbling economy and increasingly economically stratified society to the Gilded Age. This was afterall the backdrop of L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which was first published in 1900.

While many scholars have read the Wizard of Oz as, "a parable of the Populists", does the story have any narrative power as an allegory today?[1] Annie Leibovitz's (stunning) December 2005 "Oz" inspired photo shoot for Vogue may be instructive. Like the first image in this post suggests, who is wagging the dog behind the curtain?






[1] Henry Littlefield was probably the first to critically analyze the Wizard of Oz as an economic parable in his 1964 essay which was published in American Quarterly, "The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism". (subscription required)




Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Big Three Killed My Baby

For the last couple of weeks or perhaps a month, I've been rediscovering The White Stripes, a Detroit City garage rock band. I knew and liked them before my visit to Detroit two and a half years ago, and I can't say that my visit to Detroit really had anything to do The White Stripes - but I did discover another garage band The Detroit Cobras while there. Not sure why I'm re-tuning myself to Stripes, probably because their sound is quite close to The Detroit Cobras - unpolished, raw, energetic and not filled with a pitch-perfect ProTools sound.

The song that really stays with me is "The Big Three Killed My Baby", a song that is both typical and atypical for the Stripes. It was their third single ever, also the third track on their debut album. The sound is typical of their early years, which is more unpolished than the later, and Jack White's vocal is more scratched and raw and pulled a bit back in the production. The result is pretty close to MC5, who of course also hailed from Detroit. Lyrically, the song is atypical for the Stripes, as it is quite political, while most of their songs are relationship songs (for lack of a better word).

Generally speaking, three is a significant number for the Stripes as Jack has often stated. Their music consists of three sounds: vocals, guitars, drums or vocals, piano, drums. Visually, black, white and red are the only colors used. In the context of Detroit, the Big Three can really only refer to the Big Three car companies: General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. That they "killed my baby" needs a bit more unpacking. But first, here is a live version of the song - it's a bit faster than the original, and the sound is less good - but here Jack White inserts the names of the Big Three into the song.



The song has three verses and three choruses but interestingly the structure is reverted from the standard verse-chorus and instead runs chorus-verse. The song ends with a coda that can almost be said to serve as a new chorus. Musically, the song starts with a discordant guitar noise, leading into a typical garage rock riff for the first chorus. The verse shifts into a standard blues riff, akin to Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker intoning the ails that afflict them. Thus, there is a reversal of the way that verse and chorus are used musically - the typical blues riff is used for the verse rather than the chorus, while the more standard rock riff is used for the chorus.

The song is simple and stripped-down, with no real musical progression except at the coda. What the reversal does, is to draw forth the lyrics of the verse and make them stand as statements, much in the spirit of blues. It is a similar feeling to "I'm a Man" - ba-da-bam "I'm a man" ba-da-bam "I spell M" etc. This strategy makes us pay attention to the lyrics of the verse as much as chorus. The silence between each riff pushes Jack's voice forward and his shouts seems as if refracted through a megaphone or otherwise distorted. It gives the sensation of aggressive and frustrated shouting.

The chorus is simple and direct:

The big three killed my baby
No money in my hand again
The big three killed my baby
Nobody's coming home again
Here is a blues echo again, "bad guys killed my baby, I'm now left alone with no money". This is definitely familiar territory for any form of blues or rock, and certainly also the Stripes themselves. The change comes in the first verse:
Their ideas make me want to spit
a hundred dollars goes down the pit
30,000 wheels are rollin'
and my stick shift hands are swollen
everything involved is shady
and the big three killed my baby
It seems reasonable to assume that 'their' refers to the big three and it is in this verse that we see not just a personal protest and revulsion ("make me want to spit"), but also the clue to what the big three are. The reference to wheels and stick shifts make us think of cars, and as I mentioned, in the context of Detroit, we can be sure that the Big Three represent the car industry. Money being wasted and shady dealings set the tone for the rest of the song, but the reference to stick shifts is peculiar. The image of having used the shift so much that one's hands swell up, is clear enough. The negative feedback image that we get, a particular loathing towards the car and its mechanism, is also clear enough, and quite powerful in the way the car is seen as almost penetrating in nature.

What is peculiar, is that most American cars have automatic rather than manual transmissions. The reference thus seems rather out of place in the context of Detroit. Of course, even automatic transmission requires the driver to manipulate a strick, so the image still works.

After another chorus, comes second verse, which is almost twice as long as the first verse:
Why dont you take the day off and try to repair
a billion others dont seem to care
better ideas are stuck in the mud
the motors runnin' on Tucker's blood
don't let them tell you the future's electric
cause gasoline's not measured in metric
30,000 wheels are spinnin'
and oil company faces are grinnin'
now my hands are turnin' red
and i found out my baby is dead
Most of the verse is clear enough, revealing a frustration with people buying new cars instead of reparing old ones, being indifferent to the problems and the involvement of the oil companies. However, there are two significant lines, the first being "the motors running on Tucker's blood".

Preston Tucker designed one of the most iconic American cars; the 1948 Tucker Sedan, also known as 'Tucker's Torpedo'. It was not, however, a big seller, as only 51 cars were produced before production was shut down, based on allegatons of fraud. Tucker had taken to selling the cars before they had been built, and this led to investigation for fraud, initiated, some say, by the Big Three - hence the reference to blood.

The reason it was called the Torpedo was not just its sleek aerodynamic design, but also because Tucker during World War II had produced gun turrets for torpedo boats. After the war, Tucker shifted his production to cars, but brought in ideas from his military experience. Friedrich Kittler's statement on the entertainment industry being abuse of military technology seems to be suitable even here.

Tucker, then, becomes an image of the car industry's involvement with the military (metonymic with war and death) and shady dealings (although he was acquited, the rumors that the Big Three initiated the investigation still reflects corruption).

Related to this same notion of the car industry being implicated in a larger system of dominance and corruption, comes in the lines "don't let them tell you the future's electric / cause gasoline's not measued in metric". Gasoline in the US is of course not measured on the metric scale, but rather on the Imperial - so the song claims a certain Imperial colonialism on the car industry's part, implicitly arguing, I would say, that the reason there are so few electric cars is the fact that the car industry and oil industry work together to keep such change down ("and oil company faces are grinnin'"). Clearly, there is conspiracy theory at work here, but also a capitalist critique of inter-connected corporations.

The chorus again and then third verse:
Well I've said it now, nothing's changed
people are burnin' for pocket change
and creative minds are lazy
and the big three killed my baby
The shortest of the three verses, it continues with the accusation against the majority of people, pointing out that their greed for money halts change and development. It makes creative minds lazy and thus baby gets killed. What is more interesting, is the coda of the song. The music shifts into the chorus but changes slightly into a pounding finale. The lyrics:
And my baby's my common sense
so don't feed me planned obsolescence
yeah, my baby's my common sense
so don't feed my planned obsolescence
i'm about to have another blowout
i'm about to have another blowout
Three different lines, each repeated once, makes this coda seem akin to another chorus. "Don't feed me planned obsolence" extends the disgust at the lack of development in the car industry, but what is more interesting is that suddenly "baby" moves from supposed lover to common sense. What is killed by the Big Three is thus not (just) the lover, but is instead an expression of the frustration and anger with the meaningless structure of the corporate car industry. The final line, is even more signifying, seeing as we can interpret "blowout" in many different, yet inter-connected ways.
  • blowout refers to the eruption of oil and gas from an oil well.
  • it may also refer in medicine to a specific skull fracture, located around the eye.
  • it is a term in real estate, when many people vacate the premises.
  • when a tyre explodes.
  • a social event.
  • in sports, with a one-sided result.
  • a big sale, often used relating to car sales.
  • separated into blow out, it also refers to exstinguishing something.
The oil well eruption connects to the accusation of the oil industry being part of a larger corporate dominance - the blowout reference can be seen as antagonistic; an attempt or desire to blow up oil wells. Similar violence is echoed in the fracture reference, but from the other side of the battle - yet another strike is about to fall from the car industry. A tyre exploding furthers the frustration over poorly made cars, the one-sided sports game may be understood to refer to the opposition against the car industry. It's a blowout. A car sale increases the number of cars in circulation, and if you're blown out, your resistance has been extinguished. The social event doesn't fit particularly well into the discourse I have established, but there is one significant element that I have left for last.

Real estaters refer to many people leaving a particular place as a blowout. For me, this is the reference that pulls it all together. Downtown and Midtown Detroit has in the last decade or more suffered "white flight" yet again, as the Big Three have reduced production and moved production away from Michigan. Detroit has more than halved its urban population in this decade. "The Big Three Killed My Baby" is from 1999, just as this flight was happening, and this is most definitely a blowout. Urban Detroit depopulated, leaving only poorly educated and often unemployed people behind.

When I visited Detroit, certain areas of Downtown - not to mention Midtown - felt almost like a ghost town. Huge hotels stood vacated, empty, with their windows boarded up. Everywhere there were houses falling into ruin. At times it was surreal, much like these two pictures can tell:

They are taking facing opposite directions on the same street.

This blowout is a direct consequence of the Big Three's actions, and has caused understandable anger and frustration in Detroit. It is a clear case of what Jane Jacobs in her book The Life and Death of the Great American Cities calls cataclysmic money; whole neighborhoods are struck by a lack of flow in capital and production.

This reading of the song as protesting against the actions of the Big Three in the social context of Detroit workers, also provide us with a new insight into the lines of the chorus. Suddenly, the context of "no money on my hand again" functions as a reference to the poverty the Big Three have caused (yet again), as production changes. The line "nobody's coming home again" is easily understood as the regret of people moving out of Detroit, leaving behind a dysfunctional city. The baby that is killed can then be seen to be the city of Detroit, rather than a lover or even common sense. The common sense simply comes from living in Detroit and seeing the effect of the car industry first hand.

But as much as this song is a protest song, a cry of anger and frustration, it is is not completely without reflection. There is one line in the second verse that goes "now my hands are turnin' red". I see this as an admission of guilt and complicity. Everyone has a car, needs a car, in Detroit and while you can be dissatisfied with the actions of the Big Three, you are still part of the larger system. Tucker's blood is also on your hands and on the Stripes themselves.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Big Eyed Friction in the Archives

I'm just going to link (without comment) to Historiann's wonderfully compelling post, Feminist Art, Feminist History, and Public History: Friction in the Archives?

Plus I got to play with the words of her post title which should win this year's "top 10 best blog post titles award." I could wordplay all night with this but I sense a future thesis title like, "Friction in the Archives: A History of Public Feminist Art."

ok, one comment. Art critic or not, did she have to take the "Big Eye" down?

Seriously. Great post. And I wasn't kidding about Big Eye or the title.